KHEVSURETI AND KAZBEGI: A TALE OF TEXTILES AND TREACHEROUS ROADS IN THE CAUCUSUS MOUNTAINS

 Roshka, Khevsureti.

Roshka, Khevsureti.

I am a mountain girl, and there is nothing that makes me more suspiciously giddy than being oxygen-deprived at high elevations surrounded by wild, majestic mountains and unpredictable weather. As such, I was most looking forward to our travels to tour around and meet with artisans in a couple mountainous (and, as some Georgians say, the heart) of Georgia.

The mountainous region of Khevsureti was not initially on my list of places to visit in Georgia, but it most certainly became my favorite and the most memorable. Irina Koshoridze, the Director of the State Museum of Applied and Folk Arts, suggested we travel to Khevsureti to visit and stay with a couple of her embroidery artisan friends there. It was in the mountains and only took up about a page in the Lonely Planet, so I was absolutely game to go somewhere very few foreigners visit and about which I knew virtually nothing. 

 The fortressed city of Shatili, Khevsureti. 

The fortressed city of Shatili, Khevsureti. 

I wasn’t prepared for how remote or beautiful Khevsureti is. The guide book describes the region as sparsely populated, which is a bit of an understatement. The population of villages are counted by the number of homes—two, four or, if it’s a sizeable village, maybe 10. There are no restaurants, and only a couple of mostly unofficial guesthouses (places where you can lodge and eat). Many of the areas are accessible by road only during the summer months and, even in summer months, the roads are perilous. You cannot (or should not) attempt to drive through this region without an experienced driver and a 4WD truck. One second of inattention could result in plummeting off the side of a narrow and washed out dirt road into a ravine or river below, and there are many memorials along the way that attest to those who were lost in such a way.

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It’s probably no surprise, then, that the people of Khevsureti are a hearty bunch. Historically, they were legendary warriors, and it’s said that men in this region wore chain mail well into the 20th century. It’s also said that the famed (and incredibly filling) Geogian dumplings, khinkali, were invented in this region. But, as in so many other places in the world, this culture is barely holding on as populations and traditions dwindle, making the people we met ever the more important cultural heritage bearers. 

 Our host's grandsons, inheritors of the family's now last and best example of a Khevsuretian sword from the 17th century. They are also just so cute. 

Our host's grandsons, inheritors of the family's now last and best example of a Khevsuretian sword from the 17th century. They are also just so cute. 

One such woman, and our host for two nights, is Nino Arabuli (pictured with me below). Khevsureti is well known for its embroidery and very colorful traditional costumes. In the past, it was traditional for every Khevsuretian woman to embroider her own clothes. Nino is a very skilled embroiderer, and was kind enough to show me her and her family’s collection of traditional costume, which was really more beautiful than anything I’d seen in museums. Nino's daughter, Natia, also tried on her grandmother's clothes and let me try on what she described as her "prom" dress which, of course, she embroidered herself. 

 Traditional Khevsuretian slippers, hand made by Nino. A pair of these babies apparently went for around $500 at the International Folk Art Fair in Santa Fe several years back. She's no joke!

Traditional Khevsuretian slippers, hand made by Nino. A pair of these babies apparently went for around $500 at the International Folk Art Fair in Santa Fe several years back. She's no joke!

Beyond keeping this cultural tradition alive, her and her husband have also spent much effort to preserve their family’s traditional Khevsuretian home, the only one of its kind remaining (pictured below). Nino and her daughter, Natia, also make some tasty, traditional Khevsuretian mountain food and homemade beer and cha-cha you really can’t get better anywhere but there, though I’m not sure we expended enough energy to merit such calories. 

 Nino's traditional Khevsuretian home in Barisakho, Khevsureti. 

Nino's traditional Khevsuretian home in Barisakho, Khevsureti. 

While in Khevsureti we drove over the spectacular Datvisjvari Pass (2675m) to Shatili (pictured above), an old town made of stone, fortress-like buildings built between the 7th and 13th centuries and, until relatively recently, were still occupied (photo of one that is still occupied below). The drive itself was the most awe-inspiring and memorable experience of the entire trip for me. 

 Datvisjvari Pass (2675m) , Khevsureti. 

Datvisjvari Pass (2675m) , Khevsureti. 

To me, Shatili is a sort of beautifully haunting embodiment of an old culture that was and, to a lesser extent, still is. Khevsureti, with its part animist beliefs, blood brothers, tales of legendary warriors and wild mountains feels downright medieval. You can even visit medieval crypts—hundreds of human skeletons still visible—where villagers infected with the plague would go to die. There is certainly a bit of spookiness about the region that comes with its wild, pristine beauty. Khevsureti is a place that will move you.  

 Lamb jams, a not infrequent occurrence in Khevsureti. 

Lamb jams, a not infrequent occurrence in Khevsureti. 

On the literal flipside of Khevsureti is Kazbegi, another mountainous region in Georgia that is well traveled and famous for its church perched on a mountain surrounded by mountains, including the third-highest mountain in Georgia, Mt. Kazbek. At 2200m and accessible by the gnarliest of dirt roads, the Tsminda Sameba Church is a construction wonder and testament to pious devotion. 

 Tsminda Sameba Church. Mt. Kazbek in the distance. Stepantsminda, Kazbegi. 

Tsminda Sameba Church. Mt. Kazbek in the distance. Stepantsminda, Kazbegi. 

In the valley below the church you can find the gallery-studio “Mokheuri Teka” (“teka” means felt in Georgian), which was established in 2009. It was founded by local designer Tamar Sujashvili.

 Mokheuri Teka studio.

Mokheuri Teka studio.

A graduate of the Faculty of Design at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, she decided to use her designer skills to revive felt making, which has long-rooted traditions in this mountainous part of Georgia. The workshop employs up to five artisans and produces different felt products using both local and merino wool.

Tamar explaining the basics of her felting process. 

The gallery-studio also provides trainings for local youth to ensure that this traditional technique is passed on to new generations. Some of the collection pieces, featured below, come from this studio. 

 An assortment of homemade jams and teas at the studio, ingredients hand picked in the woods surrounding a nearby monastery in the mountains.

An assortment of homemade jams and teas at the studio, ingredients hand picked in the woods surrounding a nearby monastery in the mountains.

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